Femi Redwood, correspondent, CBS News and 1010WINS Radio in New York, joins Voices from the Field to talk about her journey into broadcasting, what it means to be a lesbian journalist and her advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community and how journalists and news organizations can better cover LGBTQ issues.
Edited and Paraphrased for Print
Welcome to the Voices from the Field, Femi Redwood. Femi is at CBS News for news path. And she also is at Radio1010 WINS in New York City. Femi is also a member of the NLGJ, which is the Association for LGBTQ journalists and is co-chair of the National Association of Black journalists, LGBTQ+ Task Force. Happy Pride Month, Femi.
Thank you! It's a great month. I love June. I love pride and I'm so glad that we get to have this conversation.
Could you tell us, you wanted to become a journalist and specifically a broadcaster?
Growing up, my mom was not a morning person at all. She would be in the bed until noon. Whereas my dad was very much an early morning person. So every morning, my dad and I would sit at the breakfast table and read the newspaper, and almost debate each other about whatever was going on. And so from there, news was this way that we bonded. Then I just fell in love with news. It was just something I was incredibly interested in, in terms of what's going on around the world, how one thing might affect another thing, it was just something that really, really interested me. But the idea of being on TV didn't even cross my mind. I grew up in South Carolina for half of my life. And then later, we went to Delaware. And in Delaware, when I would look at the news, no one looked like me. it was a predominantly white newscast. Certainly no one was LGBTQ. And it just always bothered me. And so at that point, it sort of came together gradually that not only did I want to be in this industry, because I really do love the aspect of educating and informing people. But also, I just think it's important that on air, people reflect the community. And when the stories would come on in Delaware, they would do these stories. And I would just think the people that you spoke with, they don't reflect my life, they don't reflect anyone I know, these conversations aren't really something I can connect with. Because they didn't have any people of color in it. So it just all sort of came together. My first major actually in college was management information systems, because I thought, 'sure go into business, I'll make money life will be good.' But then after the first semester, I realized this isn't it, I it doesn't bring me joy. It's not what I want to do. So I'm going to go into news. And so I transferred schools and changed my major to broadcast journalism.
I love hearing how it was like the connection with your dad that kind of got you into news and journalism. Now, as I mentioned, you're at CBS. And then you're also at radio's 1010 WINS. What does a day in your life look like, handling dual positions?
There's no day that's the same, especially because we're coming out of the tail end of the pandemic. It's interesting - I started both of these jobs in the middle of the pandemic. So I don't know what it's like to work at either of these places under normal circumstances, but I certainly know that what it's like now is completely different than what it's been like any other time in my career. At CBS News, we're still mostly working from home. I start my day checking the news and we have a morning meeting. And from there I connect with which producer I'm assigned to, figure out what my story is for the day and connect with them. I may do a Zoom interview from home. Slowly but surely, we've been getting out a bit more in the field. So I may actually interview someone in the field, which feels so nice to be out again. But honestly, the bulk of my work is still from I'm very lucky to have a whopping three closets in my apartment, which is a big deal. So I was able to turn one of my closets into a booth. And so literally, I've got coats padded on one side and then shelves in there. And a microphone hanging down. It is insane, except for the fact that my cats like to sometimes go in there. So that's what my day looks like with CBS. On 1010 it looks a little different. It just sort of depends. If I'm out in the field, then it's the same thing where I'm connecting with the assignment desk from home to see what my story is going to be like. When I go straight out in the field, I do everything from my car. A week or so ago, I did a podcast for the anniversary of George Floyd's death and what has changed with policing in large cities, but especially New York City, and so for that, everything was done in my closet. All of the research is done on the comfort of my couch and the interviews and everything is done in the closet. Which is kind of funny that I'm doing so much more in the closet because it's sort of like, never in a million years did I think I would be back in a closet, but here we are, 2021.
I'm so glad you are finally able to get out and get to do live segments again and be in the field, and really get to do like reporting on in person, because that's really what feels so special. You are now a national journalist. And you've covered stories from all over the country. I noticed you started in New York City. What sort of lessons from the local level Have you learned that kind of taught you about newsworthiness and the interest for a story and what's needed to really make a great story?
I reported in New York City before going to Flint, Michigan, to be an anchor and reporter. New York City is sort of this completely different beast. But in Flint, what was important to me was really getting to know the community. And that wasn't by just watching the news, it was doing simple things like spending time in a coffee shop and seeing and hearing what people found important, going on chat boards, Facebook, Facebook groups, and hearing what people are talking about, even if these things that they were talking about weren't necessarily newsworthy, they still give you an indication of what was important to a community. We know that Flint had all of these water issues. But that wasn't the only issue that Flint had. So for me, it was really important to get to know all of the other aspects of Flint, so that I could tell their stories in a way that I was missing as a child. And what that means is not just telling stories about some of the wealthier communities outside of Flint, but telling stories about the people that live in Flint. But not just the negative stories, not just all of the economic issues. I like to focus on the strength behind all of the people that had all of these issues. And that was why I was drawn to Flint. Because in this community that was so so disenfranchised, so abused in a way, but underneath all of that it was this community of fighters, people that were fighting every day to still send their children to school, people that were fighting every day to make a better life. So that inspired me. So so for me, the biggest thing in covering local news is really understanding the community and finding out from them what's important, and not telling them what's important. And I feel like that's what's missing and a lot of local news.
As a journalist who is from a very small town in South Carolina, did you ever feel like you had to fight both being out and being a black woman in your career?
Oh, my God, yeah. My mom is from Jamaica. And my father was from the deep, deep south. He was the first person in his family to graduate from high school, the first person to go to college. So I didn't have a lot of family wealth to help me get through the beginning of my career, which everyone knows is not a lot of money. I also didn't have the connections. I didn't go to an Ivy League school. I went to a historically black college, one of the HBCU schools in Mississippi - Jackson State University. And so I didn't have all of these connections that I found a lot of my white counterparts had. In addition to the connections, I didn't have that family wealth to rely on. So for example, doing like three and four internships was not possible because I had to work during the summer. And taking a job that paid $25,000 a year was not possible because I had bills to pay, including college debt. So yeah, my role was definitely a bit more challenging because I didn't have those things. The other thing that's sometimes lost in all of this, especially as a young journalist, is not knowing whether or not my sexuality would offend a news director. We cannot pretend that in the same way racism exists in this industry, we can't pretend that homophobia doesn't exist as well as sexism. So for the beginning of my career, I was not out of the closet at all, because I was just quite frankly, afraid that it was going to get in the way. As a matter of fact, one place I worked, I remember telling a co worker. She asked about something, and I had a girlfriend at the time. And so I would say my boyfriend, because I just didn't know. Now granted, that only lasted about six months, because I couldn't almost have this fake identity. And one of the issues with that is, when you have queer journalists, and they're not able to be their full self in their newsrooms, how can we expect them to be able to tell these full stories or as community members to trust them with their stories when they don't even feel comfortable enough to bring their full selves into the newsroom. So undeniably, that was one of the things, one of the issues I had. And then also, there are all of these issues that we deal with in news when you're black. So for example, it's only been in the past year or two where we've really seen a lot of black woman wearing their natural hair. For years, we've been told that our natural hair is not professional. In fact my natural hair is like this thick, curly afro. But I was always told I couldn't wear my hair natural. So since I started in news, I was either straightening my hair, or wearing a wig. But you know, we were told we had to hide this part of ourselves. And so we were doing damaging things for our hair, or buying expensive weaves - all of these challenges that our white counterparts don't have. I also faced my share of homophobia, racism and sexism, which for some people could undeniably derail their career. We've heard of people saying, 'I left news because of these issues.'
Do you want to speak more to some of the issues you faced in newsrooms, specifically around things like homophobia or racism?
Yeah, we'll start with homophobia. There have been instances of microaggressions. And these things are seemingly harmless. But what it does is it tells journalists that this is not a place where you can come out at the sun, a place where you can feel safe. One newsroom I was in was when the Winter Olympics were happening. And one of the reporters said something about a man who was an ice skater and she said something like, 'well, he's gay, because do you know any men who are ice skaters that are straight?' And so I told management about it, but they didn't think it was serious. And here's the issue. Fast forward a little bit later, a new reporter moved to the market. And when we were speaking, he obviously knew that I was out. He didn't feel comfortable coming out of the closet because he heard of incidents like this. And so when these things happen, while they seem like very small things, not only does it prevent people from being their true, authentic self on camera, but it also makes me question how you're going to cover a story about hate crime, towards someone who is gay, if this is your mindset. There been times in newsrooms where I've had to challenge managers, and the language that they use. For example, there was a robbery that happened at a university. And I wasn't working that day. But I was watching the broadcast and the the anchor said, 'police are looking for a black man who's five, seven and wearing jeans.' And so I called the news director, and I said, 'Well, you just described my dad, my brother, my neighbor, the guy at the deli, you're basically describe every black man. And so when these things happen, it'spushing this negative stereotype without actually giving any useful information. There have been so many incidents. The one time I was ever written up at a station. Coincidentally, this is all the same station, but the ones I was ever written up in my life in my career. The report said Femi makes her coworkers uncomfortable when she talks about homophobia, sexism and racism. And that's an issue because if I can't tell you that your words are homophobic, or your words are racist, or your words or sexist, then not only are you condoning it, but you're also not fixing the problem. And if you're not facing that, then how in the world can we tell these true authentic stories about this community if we can even give the dignity to all of these groups within the community?
That is such a good point. Such an insightful point. And it really highlights how we often think queer people and the LGBTQ community in general has made a lot of strides going forward. But these issues still exist, and there are still things that gay and trans people have to face every single day.
If you look at the makeup of newsrooms, off the top of my head, I can think of one local anchor and one national anchor, who are cis women, but present themselves, gender nonconforming. I know of trans reporters. No one though, that is out and trans. So why, why? Why do we have these? Why are these people still missing from the newsrooms? Why are these people not comfortable being their true authentic selves in the newsrooms? As an industry, we really need look within and look at what we're doing to cause some of these issues.
That leads me right to my next question, actually. So as I mentioned, you're a member, you're a board member of the NLGJ, which is the association for LGBTQ journalists. And in a lot of ways, you're one of the most vocal and one of the most prominent lesbian voices, representing the gay community broadly, all around the country. How did you How do you feel knowing that that is a role that you've kind of taken on? And what do you see as the future for queer journalists everywhere in the country?
For me, personally, I am so beyond honored just because again, never in a million years, if you would have told me, I don't know, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, that I would be in this position, speaking about these things, I would not have believed you. As a matter of fact, my mom is the most supportive person in the world. But in the beginning of my career, when I was thinking about having these conversations and thinking about where my career is gonna go, am I gonna focus on LGBTQ issues? Am I gonna be general assignment, all of these things that my mom actually questioned me, I remember she asked, 'are you hurting your career if you only focus on gay issues, and if you're even out of the closet?' And so obviously, I told her, 'I think I'm going to be fine.' But if you would have told me back then that I would be here, and it hopefully wouldn't be getting in my way. Who knows, I wouldn't have believed it. So I am so honored that I have the opportunity to speak for people who can't, who aren't in those positions to be able to be as vocal as I am. Because that is a massive privilege that I have the financial stability to be able to do that. And honestly, that I even have a wife who has this financial stability that allows me to talk about these things and not be concerned about how it's going to affect my career. That is a massive privilege. So I'm super proud and happy that I get to do that. In terms of the future of queer journalists, what I would like to see in a lot of news companies, not a lot, some news companies, you see that they have verticals dedicated to all of these separate identities. Like NBC, MSNBC, a lot of the news agencies have these different verticals, which is great. But what I would like to say is, we not need these verticals, that these stories are included in every story that we do, because every story is a queer story. Just like every story is a black story, just like every story is a gender story. So for example, the job numbers, I don't remember what they are. But the job numbers came out today. And of those numbers, instead of just talking about the broad population. I would love to know what those numbers look like for non binary individuals. What do those numbers look like for for black folks? So in terms of where the future of journalism is for queer journalists, hopefully it's more inclusive, because those voices will make any newsroom more just stronger. And better. I mean, everyone's going back to job numbers. Today, everyone is doing a story on the job numbers, great. But whichever station decides to do the story on the job numbers and really breaks it down into what these numbers look like for different communities. That's the story I'm going to remember. Because that's the story that's different. And that's the story that I think is truly telling what is going on in America.
I think the impact that visibility has not just for queer people, but I think for everyone, for a very long time it was underplayed, and I think it was used to keep people who maybe had minority identities held back from participating fully in society. And I think something that's been so empowering recently is the number of journalists we've seen who are able tolive their full authentic lives, who are able to be out. And I think in part, that's because people like you are visible, and you represent this way that our people and gay people and trans people can have these fulfilled lives in these amazing careers. You cover the intersection of race and gender, and then LGBTQ issues. How did you make the transition to focusing on those topics? And then how do you think, as we see more queer journalists appearing and working and really thriving in this industry? How do you think those issues are going to be covered long term?
At the time, when I truly stepped into a leadership position within my career, I was lucky in that I had an executive producer who supported me. And he valued these stories, because at the end of the day, if your executive producer or your news director isn't going to allow you to do these stories, everyone thinks that reporters have all of this power, we don't. It's all the producers and everyone above us. So I was lucky enough in that he valued and understood that these stories were important. So for me, what I would just do is and same thing that I just mentioned, when something would come out, I would look at what that means for someone else. So not just these the topical issues. But what that meant for a different family. I'm trying to think of a story off the top of my head where I really like one of those first couple of stories. When I came into my own, I don't remember one of my first couple of stories, honestly, because we're now going back a couple of years. Oh, there's one story. It was about equal pay, something about women that make 76 cents to the dollar. And then I pointed out that that looks different if you're black, looks different if you're Latino. And so also beyond that, what does the story look like when you are a queer couple of color?
How do you think coverage of issues related to queer people? You mentioned the story about how financial accessibility is different for queer couples. How do you think queerness becomes more normalized and queer people are more embedded into the industry? How do you think stories and that type of coverage is going to change? Do you think verticals, specifically on queer news will start disappearing and be integrated into just regular news?
I certainly hope it will be integrated. I think right now, coverage is horrible. Stations have certainly gotten better over the years, undeniably, but there's so, so many blind spots, which is so incredibly problematic. You know, you look at right now - 2021. There's just been an insane amount of anti trans bills in state legislatures. And in so many of these newsrooms not only there definitely is not a trans reporter, but even when a lot of these companies and stations are finding folks to talk about these issuesm they're not finding trans folks. And so it's so ludicrous because it would almost be talking about what racism and policing looks like without talking to anyone who's black. So I think we have a very far way to go. Companies are getting better undeniably. But it's still leaps and bounds. The fact that again, like I said, we don't have a lot of out journalists, especially a lot of non binary out journalists, especially because in a lot of these markets, when they're doing these stories, they're not going to transpose. A lot of local news stations still do a horrible, horrible job with dead naming trans folks who have died or who've been killed. Horrible, horrible job. I tell journalists all the time, here's what happens. News come out that a trans woman was killed. And the initial couple of articles that are put out or reports that are done, the trans woman is always misgendered. And so when folks go to these news organizations and say, 'Hey, you misgendered and you dead named this person, and they say, Well, this is what the police officer told me.' And so I always tell journalists, 'we've got to stop taking police officers and their words, as gods. They're not. They are people just like the rest of us.' So if the officer is saying, 'This person is this gender, and this person is this name,' but a trans person's friends or family is saying, 'no, her name is this, and she's this,' listen to the friends and family. Don't listen to police officers, because for the love of God, at least give them dignity in death. So yeah, that's one of the many ways that news is seriously failing the LGBTQ community. But then even also to in the fact that a lot of these stories exist beyond pride. So many news stations only do queer stories during pride, but there are the other 11 months out of the year. So when you're doing these stories, think about how you can incorporate LGBTQ voices, or think about how, even if the story going back to trans folks, because I really think we need more trans folks in media. I'm going back to trans folks, you don't have to just have a trans person in your story when it's about trans issues. You can be doing a story about taxes, talk to someone who's trans. You know, they still pay taxes. So yeah, we certainly have a ways to go. But I am encouraged. But I think we have a ways to go. I don't think we can pat ourselves on the back. But I think we're getting there. Or maybe I'm just super optimistic. But I would like to believe we're getting there.
What is something about broadcasting that like brings you joy inin your day to day life?
One of my favorite things is going back a couple of years. there was a moment where I was doing one of those school fairs and this little brown girl - she was very shy - came to me and wanted to talk to me about my job. And she wanted to take pictures. And she thought this was so, so cool to see a black woman who is an anchor. And those are the moments that get me the most excited - just knowing that I give so many young folks hope because I certainly didn't really have that as a kid when I looked at wanting to do this as a career. And then also seeing the same thing with little young queer kids. So for me, that's what excites me the most, is knowing that I am helping someone know that they can do this. I am helping someone know that they can be their true authentic selves and still do what they love. So yeah, it's really just knowing that someone is inspired. I always joke that journalists are the most curmudgeon people in the world. And we kind of forget sometimes, especially when you're in the thick of this, that for a lot of people this is a dream. We literally are doing things that a lot of people would love to do and I'm just so grateful. When I get those reminders that I'm helping someone, I may think that I, I'm not doing anything, I may think that I am total trash, whatever. But I know in those moments that I'm helping someone, and that just means the world to me.
Thank you so much. That's such an amazing answer. I love hearing what brings people joy about broadcasting because I think it's such a great career. It's about the joy you bring to others, and also like the joy that reporting brings to you. So I just want to say thank you for joining us.
Femi Redwood is a TV and radio correspondent who splits her time between CBS News and 1010WINS Radio. From her previous work at VICE News covering intersectional issues, to her time as an investigative reporter and anchor in Flint, Michigan, Femi's mission has always been the same: to empower communities through powerful storytelling. She is a board member of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists and co-chair of the National Association of Black Journalists' LGBTQ Task Force.
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