Photo by Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Who is Sheletta and why is she everywhere?

By Rachel Hutton Star Tribune

March 20, 2023
Photo by Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune
She's been told she's "too much," but she won't tone it down. Minnesota's boldest broadcaster gives the Black female perspective its due – and puts the powerful on blast.

Andrew Brundidge was headed to his first high school dance. And the 16-year-old's mother, local media personality/author/rabble-rouser Sheletta Brundidge, wasn't going to let the milestone pass unmarked. Or, more accurately, un-mocked — as lovingly and lightheartedly as possible.

Andrew looked like a contender for Best Dressed in Air Jordans, zippered skinny jeans and a burgundy velvet tuxedo jacket. But his ride to Cottage Grove's high school was decidedly uncool: a minivan filled with his parents and younger siblings, decked out in their finest hair bonnets and bathrobes. His classmates howled. A few snapped photos.

The scene could have served as the pilot for the reality TV show Sheletta has been visioning for her family. And when she recapped it for her thousands of Twitter followers, they responded with laughing emojis, "Lawd hammercy," "You are a whole mess," and "This whole thread is peak Black Mama."

Sheletta, 51, is known to get a laugh. And even more so, to get a reaction, whether she's turning attention to events that uplift and unite — or injustices that need righting.

After years toiling in the background at Twin Cities television and radio stations, Sheletta recently secured her own WCCO Radio talk show, launched the state's first Black-owned podcast network, and has gone viral "fifty-leven" ways, as she's fond of saying.

More than a million people have seen Sheletta's youngest child, Daniel, as a 4-year-old with nonverbal autism, sing his first words to the hit song "Old Town Road." Her middle son, Brandon, who also has autism, blew up the internet when he interpreted the crude, anti-Joe Biden meme "Let's Go Brandon" as strangers' personal encouragement.

Photo by Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Sheletta, who turned both incidents into children's books, uses her media savvy to coax the spotlight her way. If she's not hanging a banner on her garage to welcome Michelle Obama's book tour (earning an onstage shoutout), she's getting her COVID shot on "Good Morning America," or guest appearing on Andrew Zimmern's TV show, or being named Minnesota's Woman of the Year by USA Today — and then taking out billboards to tout the honor.

Like few besides Oprah and Cher, she's on a first-name basis with Google.

Sheletta focuses on highlighting overlooked communities and causes, whether she's passing out free carbon-monoxide detectors or helping recruit Black police officers. She has gonzo ambitions, with the poster-size vision board to prove it, which she chases with seemingly unlimited energy. (One local photographer described documenting Sheletta as "like trying to capture a photon.")

Sheletta is not afraid to speak her mind — or even bite the hand that feeds her. Though some broadcast bigwigs have deemed her "too much" and "not a good fit," she refuses to tone things down. Because she believes her authenticity is what makes people listen.

"People love real, and they love light," Sheletta says. "I believe that God put me here to be a light. And so whenever I can shine a light, I'm shining it, and I'm not apologizing for it."

Problem solver

Sheletta begins each day by praying that the Lord makes her the answer to somebody's problem.

At 7 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, that problem was her children's — getting off to school. Sheletta mashed bananas and dosed medications, all while jokily moderating a debate about which child is her favorite.

Sheletta's three youngest, who have all received autism diagnoses, required intensive parenting and therapy to reach common childhood milestones such as speaking, potty training and eating solid foods.

When her daughter, Cameron, was first tested for autism, at age 3, she didn't say a word through the entire session and was placed in a class with deaf children. Now, at age 9, both she and Brandon, who is 10, are no longer receiving services, having caught up to their peers. They even co-host a podcast on their mother's network.

Sheletta credits her children's improvement to hard work and God, with whom she is in constant conversation. ("I have to operate in faith, because if I was operating from my own physical stamina, I'd be dead," Sheletta explained. "I would have stroked out.")

Before Andrew biked off to school, Sheletta took him aside and blessed his head, praying that his room was clean and that he wouldn't even think about doing wrong.

Photo by David Joles, Star Tribune

Then Sheletta's ex-husband, Shawn, came in from the garage, where he'd been pumping up Andrew's bike tires. Though the couple divorced last summer, Shawn remains a constant presence at Sheletta's home and Twitter feed — cooking elaborate meals, even brushing her crew cut — as a low-key, levelheaded foil. (Later in the day, Shawn helped Sheletta secure an insurance policy for her business.)

"That's why don't nobody believe we're divorced, because we are always together," Sheletta says. "Well, who else do I have? Who else am I going to call? Jesus? He can't put air in a bike tire."

Before Shawn left for work, the family held hands and recited the Lord's Prayer. Then each member gave Shawn a signature handshake: a flurry of elbow taps, fist bumps, hip bumps and hugs.

Fighting for the mic

Shawn was the reason Sheletta ended up in Minnesota. She grew up in Houston's impoverished Fifth Ward. After she brought Shawn to her family's Thanksgiving meal, Sheletta's father cautioned her about getting serious. "He said, 'This boy's mac and cheese tastes better than your mama's,' " Sheletta recalled. " 'Don't marry him. Because you need a man that's gonna need you for something. And this man don't need you for nothin.' "

Sheletta didn't heed the advice and continued to date Shawn after he took a job in the Twin Cities. On one visit, Sheletta waltzed into KSTP's television studios and talked herself into a job.

For the next several years, Sheletta mostly worked behind the scenes, as an assignment editor. But by 2007 she'd persuaded the station to let her host its minority affairs program. It was important work — conducting interviews and discussing current events — but low profile, initially airing on Sundays at 5:30 a.m. And also, far from glamorous. Sheletta sold ads for the show so she could get paid for her journalism.

When Andrew was in preschool, the family briefly moved to Ohio, then back to Texas, where they had a large network of family and friends. But when the couple's subsequent children started showing signs of autism, and Sheletta was told Texas had a 10-year waitlist for services, they returned to Minnesota in 2015.

Sheletta took a part-time producing job with WCCO Radio, working the 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift. As with most Minnesota media outlets, there weren't a lot of faces that looked like hers. Throughout WCCO's centurylong history, the big-name broadcasters — Boone & Erickson, Dave Lee, Sid & Chad Hartman — have all been white men.

By late 2018, Sheletta was hoping that the WCCO podcast she co-hosted, "Two Haute Mamas," would position her to host the newly opened 9-noon slot. But Cory Hepola — another white guy — got the job. The news was disappointing, but not a surprise. "I've had guys that I've worked with say, 'You know, you're big on self-promotion,' " Sheletta says. "Well, of course I am. I can't wait for you to toot my horn, because you might not ever blow it."

Frustrated by trying to fight for a seat at the table, Sheletta decided to build her own. In February 2020, she launched the Sheletta Makes Me Laugh podcast network, a platform for Black subject experts to discuss everything from fitness to mental health to empowerment.

“It’s up to me to clap for myself. It’s up to me to let you know how fabulous I am. And if you don’t smell me stinking because I’m the shit, it’s because you have a cold and your nose is stopped up ... If you want to be famous in a room with me, you gotta go find you another room.”
Sheletta Brundidge
on her un-Minnesotan assertiveness

Then, in May, George Floyd's murder jolted WCCO into realizing its lineup of hosts wasn't well-suited to talk about the Black experience.

By summer, she'd secured three hours of airtime every Saturday for "The Sheletta Show."

Blunt and bold

"This is where I take on the whole world," Sheletta says of the laptop set on the kitchen table. (Her Emmy and two Edward R. Murrow awards are on display in the adjacent living room.) From this spot, she broadcasts the "Sheletta Show," talking about everything from educating kids about racism, to police shootings, to caregiving, to college fairs.

And she works on promoting her books, including a new one co-authored with the young girl who witnessed Floyd's murder, along with her podcast network.

"I've got Target on the run from right here, I've got General Mills on the run from right here," she says, referencing her recent call out of diversity-minded corporations' and politicians' lack of spending with Black media — which sent both groups scrambling for their checkbooks.

Sheletta ticked off several other major sponsors she's secured: Hy-Vee, Bremer Bank, Comcast and UnitedHealth Group. Not bad for a suburban mom, padding about in house slippers. "I'm still in my fricking pajamas, girl," Sheletta shrieked. "I ain't brushed my teeth. I ain't peed yet. How did that happen? The only way to explain that is God."

But as an outsider to the power establishment, it hasn't been easy for Brundidge to connect with the people who hold the purse strings. Recently, she's been networking with Houston White, a local Black entrepreneur she admires, hoping he can help her book distribution. "I said to myself, 'I need to get in his space. I need to get in his atmosphere,' " Sheletta recalled. "Because the white folks he's dealing with are not the same white folks I'm dealing with. His white folks is givin' him money. My white folks is givin' me the blues. So I need to figure out who his white people are."

Photo by Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Sheletta's bluntness can rub some folks wrong, but many of her broadcasting peers find it refreshing. WCCO host Chad Hartman calls his colleague an "outstanding broadcaster" who embodies the ideal that radio be memorable. "It might be eye opening. It might be infuriating. It might be humorous," Hartman says of Sheletta's working the mic. "But if you're asked about it a half-hour later, you're gonna remember it."

Cathy Wurzer, the MPR News veteran and co-host of TPT's "Almanac," where Sheletta contributes humorous monologues, calls herself a charter member of the Sheletta Brundidge Fan Club. She admires the fearlessness with which Sheletta speaks truth to power or calls people out. "That rankles some and makes others uncomfortable," Wurzer noted. "You don't often find that kind of boldness in our business."

Wurzer alludes to the way that the state's major TV and radio news networks, largely run by white men, have long seemed to associate a more formal, reserved presentation style with professionalism — and that there can be more pressure for women, especially women of color, as a minority group, to conform.

Sheletta's more casual, vernacular delivery defies that expectation. And her assertiveness flouts Minnesotans' reputation for reticence: "How to talk Minnesotan" advises refusing a cup of coffee three times before finally accepting it, right? But how can Black women demur when, all too often, no one's offering them anything — they have to ask for it, or demand it?

"It's up to me to clap for myself," Sheletta says. "It's up to me to let you know how fabulous I am. And if you don't smell me stinking because I'm the shit, it's because you have a cold and your nose is stopped up. Because when I walk into a room, I'm sucking all the fame out of the room. If you want to be famous in a room with me, you gotta go find you another room."

Sheletta readily admits that she's more solo operator than team player, which can be isolating.

"I'm lovable, but I'm difficult," she reflected. "I ain't gonna lie, girl. There's a reason I'm sitting in his kitchen by myself."

A force multiplier

From her seat at the kitchen table, Sheletta presses on, relentlessly, with her vision board tacked on the wall, in direct view. ("Pay off all my student loan debt" is perhaps the most attainable of the goals on the list, among them "Buy a private jet," "Be on the cover of People magazine," and "Be able to give each one of my friends $100,000 every Christmas.")

Sure, Sheletta hopes to enhance her fame and fortune. But when the light shines on her, it reflects onto others, and highlights broader issues — racial bias and discrimination among them.

Dr. Verna Cornelia Price, one of Sheletta's podcasters, who coaches listeners on reaching their potential, notes that there is great value for Black audiences in hearing themselves represented. But it's important for those outside the Black community to listen to the hosts' perspectives — especially in a state where so many neighborhoods, schools and workplaces are segregated.

Challenging the racial majority to change and creating a true, multiethnic community, Price says, will infuse society with fresh ideas and innovation.

"Some people think that undoing and eradicating racism is good for people of color," she says. "But the truth is that it's really good for white people. As our community begins to avail itself to the entire community, our entire community gets better."