Q&A with Barbara Boyd, Indy’s first African-American female television journalist
by Christopher Lloyd, Indy.com
Barbara Boyd has been a trailblazer for four decades, but she didn’t regard what she was doing as anything special.
When she joined WFBM-TV (now WRTV Channel 6) in February 1969, she was the first black female television journalist in Indianapolis, and only the second black TV journalist (Carl Stubblefield started a year earlier). She later became the first black woman to anchor a local news show.
But to Boyd, it was no big shakes. “I just do what I do.”
After 25 years on-air, Boyd called it a career in 1994. Among her accomplishments are being named Woman of the Year by the American Cancer Society, four awards from the Community Service Council and membership in both the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame and the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.
She’s still busy with numerous civic groups — March of Dimes, United Negro College Fund, Children’s Wish Fund — but recently took time to do something she rarely did during her television career: look back.
At 79, Boyd still has her trademark energy and speaks in the same precise, enthusiastic manner she employed on-air, often preceding her anecdotes with a puckish grin and the words, “Let me tell you… ” Her familiar braided hairstyles have given way to a soft salt-and-pepper bob, and she proudly shows off the Fall Creek home she and her husband, the late Ted Boyd, bought more than 40 years ago. She set up an enormous Christmas tree the year she retired, and it has stayed up ever since.
Question: You didn’t even start your television career until you were 40?
Yeah, O-L-D, baby! That’s old for TV!
How did you get your start?
I had helped open a Head Start program here in 1965. Channel 6 was doing a documentary on Indianapolis. They came and talked to a teacher and took shots of the classroom. One of the guys at the station decided we ought to have a little color on TV. So they called our office, and I got the phone call. They said we want to audition a teacher in the.classroom where they had filmed. So I’m joking, and I said, “Well, honey, if you’re looking for a star, here I are!” You know, joking! And they said, “You’re interested?” And I said, “Why not?”
At first, they didn’t know what to do with me… So I started out with Jim Gerard on the noon show for a couple of weeks. I didn’t have any on-air presence, I just observed.
Then I went to the news side for a couple of weeks. They said, “Well, Barb, you’ve been here a few weeks, what do you like?”
So I selected news, and of course didn’t know a thing about how to do it. But there were some great people in the newsroom that just brought me through.
For about four years, I think I was the only woman in the newsroom. Back then you never really saw the reporter, it was voice-over sound. And then after three or four years, they decided they wanted reporter identification. So you did a standup.
It was that way for everybody?
That’s just the way it was done. I was mainly identified through voice. Even today, people hear me and turn around and say, “Isn’t that Barbara Boyd?”
Let me tell you, I had more fun. I enjoyed that job more than any job I’ve ever had. It was challenging. You learn something every day. It’s exciting, there’s nothing like a good story to get your adrenaline going. I tell you, you can be hungry, you may have to go.to the bathroom, but when you’re out on a good story, all those things just disappear. You’re just into the story.
What got you to move into the consumer reporting and the more people-oriented stuff?
(My boss) must have read something that consumer reporting was the thing to get into. So he said,.I want you to do this on an ongoing basis.
My stories always left people happy and informed. If you notice, the news always starts out with the hard, hard news, but it always ends up with something that leaves a nice taste in your mouth.
During this time in the late 1960s and ’70s, did you think much about the fact that you were blazing a path for women and minorities?
Never thought about that. I really didn’t. I was just so happy to be hired! But let me tell you when I went in for this (job) interview, there were seven white dudes (interviewing me). I always used to watch Bob Gamble’s editorials, and he was bald. I used to wonder why they didn’t put powder on his head to keep it from shining. So the interview’s over and we’re coming through the door, and I looked up and said, “Oh, you really do have some hair!” I was very flip. I didn’t care whether I got this job or not. Because I’m making big money, I’m making $10,000 a year (at Head Start)! I was just shocked when I got the job.
During the first years you were on, did you get any negative reaction from viewers?
No, I really didn’t. Once, I went to a news conference and they gave the news release to the photographer, not to me. I really didn’t have a hard time. I think I got one hate letter. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. It referred to us (with) all the names black people get. There was a whole list of them. He was a hate-monger. I.never had a problem getting stories. Unless there’s some people who didn’t want to get their story told, and there’s not many people who don’t want to be on television.
One of the things you’re most known for.is covering your own battle with breast cancer. You even did a special report from your hospital room right after your mastectomy. Was it hard to turn your journalistic skills on yourself?
No, because I wasn’t really doing a story on my own mastectomy. I was doing a story on Reach to Recovery. Never thought that it was groundbreaking. I called the chick from Reach to Recovery and said this would be a great opportunity to do a story. I called my assignment editor and said we should do a.story on Reach to Recovery. He said, that’s cool.
So I’m sitting up there in the bed looking cute, my hair all fixed up, with my little negligee. We set up the night before and I wrote my script. They sent out a photographer the next day. We did what we had to do. We put a little humor in the story. The chick brought out a prosthesis. It must have been this big (holding hands wide apart). I said, “Obviously for a bigger woman!”
The piece was seven minutes long; that’s unprecedented. When the story was over, there was almost like a silence, from what I’m told. And then the phones lit up. We had 500 calls.
What’s your take on the.state of journalism today, print, broadcast and online?
You don’t think too much of media today?
I won’t say that. You know like most older people, things were done so much differently than today. When you stop and think, there’s not the loyalty to a station that there was when I was there. Of course, the loyalty on management’s part isn’t there. It’s a two-way street.
I have seen those stations really grow. For a long time, there were just two blacks at every station. And it stayed that way a long time. And there were not women doing anything. And all of.a sudden you looked up, and women were producing, they were assignment editors, they were photographers. And now you look at newsrooms and half the staff are women. And I think that’s a good thing. It brings a different perspective to news.
And I’m always amazed at how young people in responsible positions are. Of course, nobody knows how to spell!
**If you were starting your career today, how do you think it would be different from when you first got on TV?**
You’ve got to know that I never thought I had a problem… I knew what the deal was. You’re a dual token — you’re black and you’re female. I understood that. If I didn’t do it, somebody else would. But I never felt people were giving me stories because I was black or didn’t do stories because I was black. I think the only difference would be I’d get to do more hard-news kind of stuff. But then I never really cared for hard news. But women are more accepted now than they were then. One guy told me, “Y’know, for a woman, you’re pretty competitive!”