A new energy’s jazzing up Minnesota Public Radio airwaves.
Angela Davis, an Emmy winner who spent more than two decades anchoring and reporting television news for WCCO and KSTP, joined the station last fall. She’s hosting its 11 a.m. weekday program, a wide-ranging news hour that covers topics near and dear to Davis. Bopping her head and dancing in her seat to her show’s promo music, Davis gives off infectious energy that puts her guests at ease and invites listeners in. “I just go into a zone,” she said during a recent taping of the show.
Born and reared in tiny Java, Va., Davis credits her enduring excitement over news to having “made it off the farm.” After high school, she won a four-year scholarship to the University of Maryland sponsored by the Baltimore Sun, where she interned during the summers. She later interned for the Washington bureaus of NBC News and CNN, and also worked for former ABC News “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel before moving to the Twin Cities.
In jumping to radio, where her co-workers include former KSTP colleague Kerri Miller, Davis, 50, brings the same honesty and spark that made her popular with TV viewers to a medium often satirized for staidness.
“Her personality, warmth and authenticity really drew me to Angela,” says Nancy Cassutt, executive director of news and programming at MPR. “Angela’s a person of color, of course, and I’m aware that she’s bringing some needed other voices to MPR. But what’s most interesting about Angela is that she’s a parent, and might be the first for us. She’s a bridge between the audience and the people she’s talking to.”
Davis, an avid skier and yoga-lover who likes to take bike rides with her family along the Root River in southern Minnesota, will be traveling to greater Minnesota with her show this spring, including Duluth, Bemidji and Rochester. The Star Tribune caught up with her after an “MPR News with Angela Davis” segment that focused on three Minnesota mayors of color. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You were a natural in there — smiling and laughing the whole way through.
I have interviewed people for 30 years. When I step in the studio, my hope is to have a conversation and to make our listeners feel they’re part of that. I’m interviewing, but I’m just talking to people. The way you get your guests to be comfortable and relax, the host has to be comfortable and relaxed. This is not a quiz. I’m not testing you. I’m just curious about you and what you do.
How is this different from your last gig working Sunday nights at WCCO-TV?
I work regular days now for the first time in over 20 years. I get to go home and cook. I can go to a happy hour. Ungodly hours aside, one of the frustrations I had working in television is it’s not an industry that satisfies intellectual curiosity. Television does a lot of things well. Visuals are very powerful — an image can tell a story all by itself. But there are such time constraints that it’s very difficult to go deep.
You grew up on a tobacco farm in Virginia?
My mother got pregnant with me in college. She brought me home to her parents, so my grandparents raised me. They were wonderful and they took such good care of me but they weren’t my parents. It was hard. I had a lot of pain and loneliness as a child because I didn’t have that connection with my mom and didn’t have a relationship with my dad. There was a lot of feeling like I didn’t belong to anyone. School was the one place where I felt like I had a way out. That’s why education is my jam.
You describe your childhood as the darkest days of your life. But it doesn’t seem like you’re saying that to elicit sympathy.
I grew up poor on a tobacco farm with not a lot of access to camps and stuff. I started working in middle school, age 10 or 12, in the summertime. I have a large extended family — most were teachers, preachers and factory workers. I want young people to know that we don’t control how we’re brought into this world … but as an adult, you have to take ownership and let go of that pain.
When did you first get the idea that you wanted to be a journalist?
At 12. My grandmother and I used to watch the “Today” show. And I was fascinated by Bryant Gumbel. I said, “That’s what I’m gonna do.” And people were like, “OK, baby, all right. You go collect all those apples and let’s finish picking these cucumbers. Sure.” It was my teachers, who saw something in me, who encouraged me. I made good grades in high school — and I got a scholarship.
You came to the Twin Cities early in your career, and left.
My husband and I moved to Dallas after we’d been married a short time. We thought, oh, it’s hot, diverse. But we hated it. We had a hard time making friends. Didn’t like the workplace environment. It’s a very showy state. And we were like, you know what, that Minnesota …
Then you returned to Minnesota, first to KSTP and then to ’CCO. From a viewer’s perspective, you were a reassuring presence.
My problem was that I’d gotten bored. I’d checked all the boxes I wanted to accomplish. There wasn’t anything else to do other than move out of state, which is not something we wanted to do.
Thus, MPR. What is this fainting couch I’ve heard about?
The job requires so much reading and focus. My first week here, I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have a space where you can read? And not just for me but the whole newsroom. My husband and I found it on Amazon. It came here in six pieces.
What has the transition from a visual to auditory medium been like?
I do quite a bit of writing for the show. I write the promos — the 15-second audio clip that you hear in the hours prior to the show: “Hey, I’m Angela Davis, coming up at 11 …” That’s very TV and is very conversational. Some would say that’s not extremely MPR, but you’re talking the way people talk. The point is to get people to engage. You can have a high-level conversation that doesn’t have to be stuffy.
What’s it like to sit in the host chair?
A juggling act. In front of me I have one computer screen on which the producers are communicating with me. They’re able to message me. I see who’s calling — name, city, summary of what they want to ask. On another screen, I’m monitoring my social media pages. At the same time, I’m watching the clock — the show is timed in segments and I have to hit certain time posts.
Also, I’m looking at my guests, listening to them as they answer questions and at the same time I’m planning my next questions and maintaining eye contact. And also I have to remember that I have a guest on the phone. And when the callers call, if their questions or comments are not clear, I have to restate them.
How do you think about your purpose?
I want to help people understand how Minnesota is changing and to understand day-to-day issues that are impacting them in their homes and in their workplaces. We’re not trying to change anyone’s opinion about anything. But we’re trying to give you an opportunity to listen to a perspective or point of view that may be different from your own. Maybe you’re not comfortable asking your co-worker who’s from another country or of a different background or religion a question, but what if we did a show about that thing you’re curious about? And you could listen in and learn something?
Any recurring themes that come up from callers?
I feel a big function of the show is to educate, and maybe broaden some perspectives. One of the things that comes up a lot is that in so many ways, we all want the same things: affordable housing and safe communities. We want to be good parents, to have fun, relax, have good relationships. We want to provide sustenance for the brain. I talk a lot about the fact that I just turned 50. I wish someone would tell all 21-year-olds, if you think you’re having fun now, just wait till you turn 50. It’s so liberating.
Tell me about some of your favorite shows.
In my first week, we did one about being black in Minnesota. We had Dr. Josie Johnson on, a respected community leader, former [University of Minnesota] regent and former Urban League president who moved here in the ’40s or ’50s. Then a woman who just moved here. And James Burroughs, who held the position that the governor created to deal with racial equity. That honest, high-level conversation about how our stuff is different, not passing judgment.
We’ve also had three state commissioners in and people got to call in and learn about them as people, their pasts. And we’ve done a lot of stuff on mental health, that’s one of my personal interests. We also had someone on who was a former inmate and is now a sociology professor at the U. We did a whole show on climate change.
And what do you do to recharge?
I try to get my teenage kids to talk to me. Being a parent is very humbling. I have a daughter who’s 15 and a son who’s 17. I try to be in their faces as much as I can. I love to cook and spend time in the kitchen. I’m obsessed with yoga. I love music. I don’t get to read as much as I would like to for fun.
You are part of a power couple. Your husband, Duchesne Drew, is the community network vice president at the Bush Foundation.
You rarely see us together because we’re so busy. He’s got my back. After I left KSTP, I had to sit out for a year because of a noncompete. I stayed home with two toddlers. It was a big financial setback, but we pieced it together. He’s superbusy but he always comes home. There’s just a deep trust and respect. When I was a kid, I was like, “I’m gonna get this right when I’m an adult.”
You found each other in the Twin Cities.
Minnesota is a special place to us. He’s from New York and I’m from Virginia. We both thought we’d be here two years. We’ve been able to build the life we always dreamed of here and we want others to get a chance to do the same. I don’t like thinking that we’re exceptional. I wish other people could do what we did. One of the things my grandparents taught me is to whom much is given, much is required. We’re both intentional about trying to give back to the community.